Boats – Bangladesh’s true indigenous legacy

Staff Correspondent
Thursday, September 21st, 2017

When friends of Bangladesh, from outside and within, collaborate to write books on the lost art of boats and more


BOATS – A Treasure of Bangladesh


Although the book on boats may initially appear to cater to a niche audience, Yves Marre and Enayetullah Khan’s collaboration works as an eye-opener on the vastly rich horizon of the boats of Bangladesh. It sheds light on the understated fact that Bangladesh still boasts the largest fleet of boats in the world. In his foreword, Nobel Laureate Dr Muhammad Yunus wrote that “the demands of the 21st century means that more unforgiving steel-based mass produced and lower cost vessels are gaining in popularity.” But he also added that for the betterment of Bangladesh’s sustainable development, we must realise the central position that the humble “nouka” can still occupy in our future. This book’s most important contribution may be to help our understanding of that.


The book is segmented in five parts, detailing about the widest delta in the world, history of boats and navigation in this part of the world, its evolution and its importance in terms of heritage. In the first chapter, an interview of Yves is featured where he talks at great length about how he started advocating for the preservation of traditional boats. He recalled during his first visit to Bangladesh, he went to Mongla, which was close to the largest mangrove in the world, the Sundarbans. He wrote that “after spending so long at sea, seeing the maze of the Sundarbans was like a dream and the endless activity of so many traditional boats made me feel like I was traveling back in time. Most were made of wood and moved with various devices such as oars, paddles, bamboo poles, huge sculls, homemade square sails, all moving with remarkable energy. Life so many earlier world travelers, I had come across a treasure not yet classified as world heritage, the oldest and largest fleet in the world numbering up to a million boats”.


Filled with numerous photographs depicting life in Bangladesh through boats and boatbuilding, the book also includes literary pieces such as poems and songs, which are based on the theme of boats, such as Tagore’s “Shonar Tori”, Michael Madhusudan Dutta’s “Kapatakkha Nod”, Nakib Khan’s popular number titled “O Nodirey” and more. Tagore’s poem is relatively compact, where the narrator sits, ‘sad and alone’, on the riverbank, sheaves of cut paddy waiting beside him.  A boat approaches, piloted by a mysterious figure – probably female, who agrees to load the paddy.  The person on the bank parts with it all and then asks to be taken on board too.  But there is no room.  Sadly this poem poem was mercilessly criticised by many uncomprehending critics. Some called it sheer mysticism, others claimed that the poem was nothing but barren mist. To me at least, it is nothing inferior to a lucid touch of revelation, however small in quantity it might be. Here the finite wants to taste the infinite; further, the finite wants to be one with the all-pervading infinite.


The book also contains interview excerpts of renowned navigators and experts, such as Alain Connan, retired captain and founder of Greenpeace (France), Eric Rieth, director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS),  Rear Admiral Abu Taher and others. When asked about the versatility of boats in Bangladesh, Erik Rieth mentioned that given Bangladesh’s proximity with its neighbouring countries, its fleet has been influenced by foreign vessels, at least along its coastline. “But as soon as you start going up in the rivers, the fleet is isolated, there is much less mix. We even noticed, from one river to another, a large variety of naval architecture.”


BOATS is also a pictorial exposition on the various types of boats found in the country, it contains most of the traditional boats we’ve all seen or ridden in our lives, from Sirajganj’s Horonga to the ubiquitous Bajra. It can be said that country boats, ferries and cargo vessels were the most popular and common mode of transports for both carrying passengers and goods. Once, rocket service on Dhaka-Khulna route was considered as a pleasure trip because of the efficiency and comfort that were offered onboard, coupled with the spellbound scenic beauty of the river route. The service has lost its glory and attraction like many other water transports with expansion of road network and simultaneous decrease in navigable waterways.


Enayetullah Khan, co-author of the book and Chairman of Cosmos Books, wrote in his article that evolution of naval construction techniques is laudable, but complimented by deforestation and other causes, wooden boats have been replaced by its steel brethren. “That they are favourable to navigation cannot be denied”, he wrote, “although that is largely in the framework that orders current transport policy, which itself is questionable as the solution to our problems. And in doing so we are destroying in a single generation an art and tradition that have managed to survive for thousands of years”.


He warned that “if we don’t feel the wind in our sails, pretty soon the day will come when there will no longer be a single master-carpenter in Bangladesh, to pass on the tradition of building the unsung masterpieces of human endeavour that have traversed these parts since time immemorial. Each in its own way marking a moment in humanity’s progress, and in their struggle for survival, perhaps holding up a mirror to humanity’s historic struggle”.


Barge for Bangladesh


Yves Marre can be considered to be a citizen of the world, but more importantly of humanity, as his voyage from France to Bangladesh in the canal barge Flèche d’Or is now the stuff of legends. Armed with only two men on board (including himself) on January 1994, his sole intention was to deliver the vessel to Bangladesh and convert it into a floating hospital, which was renamed as “Friendship”, and subsequently as “Lifebuoy-Friendship Hospital”, which has proven to be a unique and strong support for the most underprivileged populations of Bangladesh. Till now, more than a million lives have benefited from her medical support.


It is to tell that story of inspiration and details about the journey that Cosmos Books published it, titled “Barge for Bangladesh”. In the book’s preface, Erik Orsenna, of the Académie Française, wrote that “I believe I have the right to pen these few words because I have been to the banks of the Brahmaputra and stood on the deck of this floating hospital. And I have seen the work: each day twenty people journey from their remote villages lost in the vast delta, each day twenty people have cataract operations, each day twenty people return home having recovered their sight”.


In his notes as the book’s publisher, Enayetullah Khan, chairman of Cosmos Books, mentioned that Yves’ story narrates as “a part-adventure, part-memoir and underlying it all, a clarion call for humanity”. When he had heard that the book, originally written in French, was being considered for an English edition. So there was little hesitation to seek to publish the book which was a recipient of the 2015 Eric Tabarly Award for Best Sea Book of the Year.


The book is divided into 13 chapters, each detailing the process from selecting a canal barge to watching it transform into a floating hospital. In the first chapter, for example, Yves goes at great length to describe how he was pondering on taking a canal barge, test-driving it in the open sea and pondering where his eventual destination may be. He reveals that initially he had shortlisted three locations – the Amazon Basin, the African rivers and the Bengal Delta. The Amazon Basin was ruled out as a low density of population in the area would not serve his cause, having to decide from the latter two.


He considered selecting the Bengal Delta “inevitable”, as he had seen flash floods in the area while flying over the area on several occasions previously. The floods had submerged more than 50% of the surrounding land whose elevation barely averages 6 metres. The river currents redraw the fragile silt river banks, isolating communities and entire villages and often forcing the inhabitants to move elsewhere. It was to serve these abandoned people that motivated Yves to undertake the journey, who, according to him, are at the mercy of the whims of the rivers as well as being seriously threatened by climate change.


After much deliberation and challenges faced, the last chapter of the book highlights how the Friendship Hospital was initially run, getting immense response from patients. At the end of the inaugural day of operation, the surgeon’s assistant had come to Yves to seek approval to perform an additional cataract surgery which was not part of the first day’s agenda. He replied in the positive, provided they were not tired and surgical equipments were adequate.


Two days later, they held a party on the barge, where everyone shed tears of joy after a patient, who was successfully operated upon, came up to thank them all in person. “This man’s recovered sight shows that all your efforts these past four years have been worthwhile”, Yves proclaimed to his crew. “It was these exceptional moments of extreme happiness that gave me the will to continue despite all the obstacles, fatigue and disappointments”, he went on to write.


The book rightfully carries the message on how he united a band of people across the globe under the philosophy of “Sailing for Solidarity”.

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